Sandford Borins

Sandford Borins, Ph.D.

Sandford Borins is a Professor of Management at the University of Toronto. He writes, blogs, and teaches about narrative, information technology, and innovation.

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July 8th, 2009

The Passing of Robert McNamara

Narrative

Two months ago I posted about my exam question asking for a hypothetical obit for Robert McNamara. With his actual passing two days ago, it’s fascinating to read reactions. He remains enormously controversial.

New York Times columnist Bob Herbert, who himself served during the war in Vietnam, expressed “utter contempt” for McNamara’s retrospective admission that the war in Vietnam was wrong. According to Herbert, McNamara — who knew early on that the war was a lost cause – should have spoken up at the time.

My Harvard undergraduate class (1971) runs a list-serv, and the comments were equally divided between those who, like Herbert, condemned McNamara for keeping silent in the past, and those who admire him for later in life admitting his errors and attempting to learn from history.

In the exam question, I asked for a Canadian perspective on McNamara. Globe and Mail obituary-writer Sandra Martin interviewed former diplomat Alan Gotlieb, who opined that McNamara was a person of honesty and integrity who, like many of the American elite, carried through his long life the belief that the US should be the world’s policeman and its conscience.

What an insider perspective, with the subordinate clause only hinting at a critique. Had she interviewed one of the many former objectors to the Vietnam War who have made their lives in Canada, I’m sure she would have gotten a different, less subtle or generous, perspective.

Documentarist Errol Morris, on his eponymous website, posted a radio interview he did attempting to sum up his nuanced thoughts about this complex man. Morris called him a technocrat with a moral dimension, a man who was torn between his loyalty, as a public servant, to the commander-in-chief and his own sense of right and wrong. Morris observed that McNamara was clearly opposed to the war in Iraq, but never forthrightly condemned it. Morris hypothesized that, in his own mind, McNamara was secretary of defense for the rest of his life. He was always the loyal servant.

I think this interpretation is exactly right: McNamara was quintessentially an insider, and while he was willing to criticize the mistakes of the past, he could never go that one step farther. He could never criticize what he disagreed with while it was happening because that would put in jeopardy his cherished insider status.

I close with a related personal vignette. While an undergrad at Harvard in the early 1970s, I sat on the student advisory committee to the Kennedy School’s Institute of Politics. We had occasional meetings (and receptions) with the “visiting committee,” which included Kennedy administration luminaries like Mrs. Onassis and Robert McNamara.

The night before one such meeting I received a call from someone in SDS, to ask about the details of the meeting and reception, so that they could confront McNamara. I told the SDS’er nothing, reasoning that, at a time when Nixon had ordered the bombing of Cambodia, embarrassing the former secretary of defense would do little to advance the cause of peace.

McNamara ultimately did not show up, which was not surprising, given that on a visit to Harvard in 1966 he was treated roughly by protesters. But, when thinking back about it, I still wonder if I didn’t facilitate a potential protest because I thought it was counter-productive, or whether I just didn’t want SDS’ers to crash the party to which I was one of the fortunate few who had been invited.

June 20th, 2009

Seven Days in May: The Cuban Missile Crisis Meets Watergate

Narrative

The 1964 movie Seven Days in May in a fictional way combines the concerns raised by the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Watergate break-in. Seven Days in May is about a plot by the joint chiefs of staff to launch a coup because the president has signed a disarmament treaty with the Soviet Union under which both nations will simultaneously destroy their nuclear weapons under international supervision. Fletcher Knebel, the author of the novel on which the film was based, drew a portrait of the belligerent disloyalty of the military leadership that was inspired by Generals Edwin Walker and Curtis LeMay. (We have seen LeMay previously both as Robert McNamara’s mentor and as the inspiration for General Buck Turgidson in Doctor Strangelove.)

Predating the Watergate events by a decade, it incorporates the same story of disloyalty to the constitution at the top of an important American institution – the military – that is ultimately thwarted both by lower-ranking staff who resist orders to break the law and by the quick thinking of the civilian executive authority.

The movie has three particularly fine performances, Fredric March as the uncharismatic but strategic president Jordan Lyman, Burt Lancaster as James Scott, the charismatic but treasonous chair of the joint chiefs of staff, and Kirk Douglas as the colonel one level below the joint chiefs who discovers the plot and exposes it to the president.

The screenplay was written by Rod Serling, creator of the television series The Twilight Zone, and displays the tension and eeriness – heightened by black and white photography — for which The Twilight Zone became famous.

The best aspect of the film is the strategic intelligence and loyalty to democratic values displayed by President Jordan Lyman. When convinced that the plot was serious, he set out to trick the plotters by cancelling a trip to a vacation retreat where they had intended to kidnap him and, for good measure, ensuring that loyal staff secretly recorded them in action.

Ultimately President Lyman confronts General Scott, man to man, in the Oval Office, accuses him of treason, lectures him about the appropriate subordination of the military to the elected leadership, and demands his resignation. Scott refuses; the President does not resort to calling in a praetorian guard waiting in the corridor, but rather tells Scott that he will give a press conference the next day announcing the resignation of all the joint chiefs. The President is able to force the resignations of the other chiefs because he has a signed statement from a loyal admiral, and, with his support collapsing, Scott too resigns.

President Lyman displays calm restraint in his actions. Aware that word of an attempted military coup in the US would give the Soviets a pretext for breaking the treaty, he forces the military leadership to resign over disagreement with the President’s policy, rather than publicly accusing them of treason and exposing the plot. Similarly, he has evidence of an extramarital affair Scott has been conducting that could readily be used to blackmail or disgrace Scott, but ultimately destroys the evidence.

The movie’s best legacy is a portrait of political leadership acting intelligently, strategically, with restraint and with respect for democratic values. It looks back to Kennedy during the Cuban Missile Crisis – his finest hour – and in narrative fiction, it is a precursor to the heroic presidency of The West Wing. Forty years after its debut, Seven Days in May is still a rewarding experience.

I won’t be blogging for the next two weeks – a bit of holiday – and look forward to resuming the second week of July.

June 11th, 2009

All the President

Narrative

The 1976 film “All the President’s Men” is fascinating for its perspectives on the craft of investigative journalism and on the Nixon Presidency, which was the ultimate object of the investigation.

The movie shows in great detail what investigative journalists do and how they do it: searching for disgruntled front-line staff willing to provide leads, following the leads, negotiating with sources, corroborating them with other sources, moving up the ladder, and attempting to catch the decision makers by surprise for candid, on the record, admissions.

That, in essence, is the whole movie, as it follows Washington Post reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward as they investigated the break-in at the Watergate offices of the Democratic National Committee between June 17, 1972 and January, 1973, when Richard Nixon took office for his second term as President. For Woodward and Bernstein, this was an ongoing uphill battle as the White House had not yet lost credibility. The movie ends with a summary of the revelations that would emerge in the following 18 months as Nixon’s hold on power crumbled.

In addition to its portrayal of the craft of investigative journalists, the movie is a double bildungsroman, showing how two neophyte journalists learned their craft by practicing it. They also had to learn to resolve their disagreements and work together. The movie is also very explicit about the skepticism they originally encountered with the Washington Post itself about their story, and the competition with other stories such as the 1972 election, the war in Vietnam, and the re-establishment of diplomatic relations with China.

The movie is optimistic, not only in its portrayal of the power of the media to demand and get accountability, but because so many front-line staff at the Committee to Re-elect the President, at considerable risk, defied authority, and cooperated with Woodward and Bernstein. These people – mainly women – were not necessarily Republican loyalists, but were rather simply hired to do a temporary job. They could see that they were being asked to comply with superiors whose actions were certainly immoral and likely illegal, and they retaliated by cooperating with Woodward and Bernstein. “Deep throat,” now identified as former FBI Deputy Director Mark Felt, in addition to similar moral objections, was also motivated by resentment for not having been promoted to the top job in the FBI. His injunction – follow the money – kept Woodward and Bernstein focused, but they had to do the hard work of following.

The movie predates by two decades the Internet, and one necessarily speculates how it would affect a similar investigation. Much of the investigation would deal with online, rather than print sources. Many more people would be involved, as citizen journalists and bloggers would have gotten into the act. And it is unlikely that a newspaper, even one with the stature of the Washington Post, would have devoted comparable resources to an investigation.

Finally, it is impossible not to trace the Watergate affair back to Richard Nixon and his style of leadership. Insecure, embattled, and suspicious to the point of paranoia, he instituted a win-at-all-costs culture in the White House, which legitimated all manner of dirty tricks against the Democratic opposition. The 2000 PBS series on the American President has an excellent 10-minute profile of his presidency that captures the essence of the man. The last word goes to presidential scholar Richard Neustadt: “for a non-people person to put himself through a career in politics was extraordinary. What was he proving? And to whom? Beneath his stance was a man always proving something to someone. I read insecurity.”

June 5th, 2009

Advise and Consent

Narrative

I’ve begun work on the chapter on modern American political narratives, a very rich genre with many fascinating exemplars. One of the modern classics is Allen Drury’s Pulitzer prize winning 1959 novel, and director Otto Preminger’s 1962 film, Advise and Consent. Taking its title from one of the powers of the Senate enumerated in the Constitution, the narrative focuses on confirmation hearings for a fictional Democratic president’s nominee for Secretary of State. At a time when the Senate is beginning its hearings for a nominee to the Supreme Court, the narrative retains its relevance.

While the narrative differs slightly in the novel and the film, I will outline elements common to both. The nominee (played in the movie by Henry Fonda) is a member of the left-wing of the Democratic Party, favoring nuclear arms negotiation with the Soviets. The narrative focuses on the split within the Democratic Party between those senators inclined for reasons of ideology, fear of retribution, or hope of favor to do the president’s bidding, and those inclined on ideological grounds to oppose him. (While the novel predates the era of hawks and doves, the terms are clearly relevant.)

The plot turns on the revelation of skeletons in closets. The nominee was an active member of a Communist cell in the thirties, which he denies under oath. One of the key senatorial opponents of the nomination, at the time of the narrative a seemingly happily-married family man, had a homosexual affair during the war. The president’s supporters threaten to blackmail him, which forces him to commit suicide. Ultimately, the Senate does not consent to the nomination. The president, ill throughout the story, then dies of a heart attack. The narrative concludes with the Vice-President, who had been pointedly ignored by the President, taking office, with the suggestion that he will reverse the foreign policy directions of his predecessor.

The narrative is, in effect, a story of two coalitions of head-butting alpha males struggling for dominance, with numerous dirty tricks employed in the battle, and suspense over the ultimate outcome. Preminger’s 1962 film was done in black and white – even by then almost anachronistic – using a documentary style. The settings alternated between some scenes in parks and streets in Washington, and others on the Senate floor, authentically recreated in a Hollywood studio. Preminger’s realism also extended the continuum of time and space, with long unbroken scenes of speeches or meetings. It was very traditional film-making, but it worked then, and still works now.

The novel is a classic example of a narrative style now rarely seen – the omniscient narrator. Drury uses this style to reveal the personal histories and thoughts of the senators he has invented. He also uses it for foreshadowing, building suspense by hinting at what is to come — which he alone knows but, by reading along, we can find out. An example: “in a way most ironic of all, this erratic, unexpected and casually inadvertent connection would turn out to have a most direct bearing on the career of a United States Senator, the future of the American Presidency, and the nomination of Robert A. Leffingwell.” (1962 paperback ed., p.225).

The novel also exemplifies the narrative idea of the inferred author. Reading it, one could infer that the author was someone who was deeply familiar with the Senate – indeed Drury covered the Senate for United Press for seven years – and, from its derogatory and ironic portrayals of the nominee, the President, and his supporters, someone who was hawkishly anti-Communist – which Drury also was. The anti-Communism is laid on thickly, with the most leftist senator declaring to the lobby group COMFORT (Committee on Making Further Offers for a Russian Truce) that “I would rather crawl to Moscow than perish under a bomb” and the nominee for secretary of state declaring to a Senate committee that he would never, under any circumstances, recommend war to the President (pp. 170, 241). The acronym COMFORT, of course, plays off the US Constitution’s definition of treason: giving aid and comfort to the enemy. The President, it is revealed, endorses both perjury and blackmail to achieve his political objectives. The leftist senator turns out to be the mirror-image of Sen. Joseph McCarthy. And, for good measure, there is a leftist Supreme Court justice – a thinly-disguised William O. Douglas – playing a willing role in the blackmail plot. (The movie is much more explicit than the novel about outing homosexuality, and can be seen as part of Preminger’s personal battle against censorship).

The repudiation of the nominee and his supporters and death of the President, achieved through the blood of a blackmailed senator, is, from the author’s point of view, a hopeful ending. I do not share that point of view, but I certainly enjoyed the narrative journey to it. For that reason, I consider Advise and Consent, in both its incarnations, a classic.

May 31st, 2009

The Right Music for Baseball

Living Digitally

After going to the Rogers Centre en famille to watch the Jays defeat the Red Sox 5-3 yesterday, I’ll take a break from the serious business of narrative to write about the way American national pastime is now presented in Canada. While aging undoubtedly reduces tolerance for loud noise and bright lights, I think the Rogers Centre’s use of both is radically diminishing enjoyment of the game. The Centre – a concrete echo chamber, especially when the roof is closed – pulsates with incessant generic rock music, interrupted only for the few seconds between the ball leaving the pitcher’s hand and the play concluding.

The Jays – and I don’t know if this is common practice in Major League Baseball – have little signature tunes, also rockish, played when each batter comes to the plate. In addition to all the valuable electronic billboard information (the count, individual stats, playbacks) there is lots of extraneous stuff, such as exhortations to make noise or names of fans celebrating birthdays.

All this son et lumiere defeats what I remember from the days of the Triple A Maple Leafs or even Blue Jays prior to Skydome, as it was first called, as one of the enjoyable aspects of the game, the chance to chat quietly between plays about strategy or share baseball lore. This is particularly important when bringing young children – mine are nine and six – and trying to explain as much inside baseball as they can absorb.

If the Jays insist on signature tunes for their players, why not be more creative? One day they could do jazz signature tunes or another they could do Beatles or a third they could do classics, even hooked on classics style (which I am playing on Youtube as I write). There are some great possibilities here such as “Norwegian wood” or perhaps “Yesterday” for a designated hitter, “a little help from my friends” when a pitcher comes up to bat (under National League Rules), or ethnically motivated choices such as Mendelssohn’s Italian Symphony or Puccini’s Madama Butterfly. Ode to Joy? Take Five? Take the A-Train? Caravan? Blue Rondo a la Turk? The possibilities are endless.

In any event, despite the excesses of son et lumiere, a good time was had by all, and our six year old son stayed interested to the last out in the top of the ninth, and told me that now he wanted to see the Yankees. We will.